On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), the 1969 Bond movie, is my favourite film. And Charles Helfenstein’s book is by far my favourite book about film. This is not some throwaway studio tie-in with a few glossy candid photos taken during filming, and a note about which celebs attended the opening. Nor is it a sterile piece of criticism from someone who knows about film theory and who thus pretends that their subjective analysis is somehow better than yours. (I’m looking at you, Now Playing podcast.) No. Helfenstein’s book is plush and lush and lavish and serious but it gives us so much more.
Here’s what most people think they know about OHMSS the film: George Lazenby wasn’t an actor and he acted the fool on set. He was sacked, or stupidly resigned, depending on who you talk to. The film was a bit of a flop but has been re-evaluated and is now a fan favourite.
Helfenstein gives us the whole story. He has spoken with the key players: director Peter Hunt, Lazenby, editor John Glen, and just about everyone else still alive, and he has had the run of the papers of screenwriter Richard Maibaum. As a result he is in a position to give us an account that glitters with detail: how the book’s title could have been The Belles of Hell, how the film script developed from 1964 onwards (the film is surely the lesser for losing the line You are as soft and sleepy as a baby chicken in a nest), how Hunt was influenced by Terence Young but none the less stamped his authority and style on the film. We hear about some of the high jinks on set and also the difficulties in filming on Mürren, the latter to my mind explaining Lazenby’s resignation from the role as much as the advice given to the actor by Rohan O’Rahilly (who is also profiled). We learn which bits of the set were repurposed from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and which member of the cast recorded a comedy record to tie in with the film.
This background is of course fascinating but for me the most useful material helps us understand the film itself. Helfenstein gives us information about the poem by Flecker, Thy Dawn O Master of the World, recited by Tracy to Blofeld, and Blofeld’s reply, which is by Yeats. And by showing us the various script treatments, Helfenstein also blows a hole in one of my theories. I’ve long thought that OHMSS should have ended with the wedding of Bond and Tracy, with Tracy’s death as the opening sequence in the following film. But Helfenstein’s analysis of the script development shows that this was never seriously considered: every script version involves the words ‘Tracy killed’. Most intriguingly of all, the book contains details of a sequence largely unshot that was to be set in the Post Office Railway, which you can now act out for yourself.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, for its sumptuous detail and the breadth of its sources but also for its warmth and enthusiasm. It’s a true labour of love that should enable you to look at a hugely under-rated film with a fresh perspective.